Healing in a Time of Pandemic

Beth Hoffman Faeth April 19, 2020

Scripture: John 14, selected verses

This is not my first experience with a period of social distancing and isolation. However, the time before this one was self-determined, and while it, too, was about keeping myself safe, it had nothing to do with contagions. Instead it was during a season of intense and all-consuming grief. My body was wrecked and broken from a traumatic birth my daughter did not survive, and just the thought of leaving my home terrified me. I was so fragile I believed that if one well-meaning person tried to hug or touch me I would physically and emotionally shatter. So I chose not to expose myself to that risk. Instead, just like today, home became my sanctuary, and I hunkered down to allow my body and my spirit to heal. There were days when it hurt to exhale. And there were days when I stared out the window angry at the mailman for going about his work so nonchalantly when I was inside withering away from the pain of loss. And there were some days that felt positively endless. And then came the days when I realized I was no longer holding my breath. And I knew healing had begun.

In the Gospel of John, there is liminal time between Mary Magdalene declaring the witnessed resurrection of Jesus to the disciples and Jesus actually appearing, post–empty tomb, to his chosen eleven. Liminal means to stand on the threshold between one’s previous identity and way of being and something else, something not yet certain. Does that sound familiar? “During liminal periods of all kinds, social hierarchies may be reversed or temporarily dissolved, continuity of tradition may become uncertain, and future outcomes once taken for granted may be thrown into doubt.”[1] The word liminal comes from the Latin word “limen,” which means threshold—any point of entering or beginning. Liminal time is the space in between what was and what is next. It is a place of transition, waiting and not knowing the outcome. Susan Beaumont, author and consultant writes: “During liminal seasons we occupy space on both sides of a boundary or threshold. We have one foot rooted in something that is not yet over, while the other foot is planted in a thing not yet defined, something not yet ready to begin.” We are living in liminal time right now, and so were the disciples as they waited to see what the future would bring. Everything hung in the balance. The tomb was empty, but where was Jesus? Were their lives at risk? Was everything Jesus taught enough to sustain them for whatever was coming next? And in that liminal time the disciples sequestered themselves, withdrew together and locked the doors to the outside world . . . because they had no idea what the future would hold, and they were afraid. They were grieving, and they needed a place and the space to heal.

What does healing look like in a time of pandemic? We know there are now millions of people trying to heal physically from COVID-19, many of those occupying the ICU and fighting for their lives. Some have surrendered their life to this virus, and their families are now closed up in their own houses of pain, grieving for those with whom there was no precious goodbye. Others move through a variety of symptoms, from slightly irritating to terrifying, and are living in isolation waiting for their bodies to do miraculous forms of healing all with time. And then there are the rest of us . . . not yet infected or already recovered, working to surrender the way life once was while waiting for whatever is next, forced to give up work that sustained us and social connection that nurtured us, struggling to make ends meet and to survive another day of teaching our children and combatting the loneliness that threatens to consume. What does healing look like as we live through this liminal time?

Perhaps we should take respite in Easter and in the earth.

Today is Earth Sunday, a day originally planned for with a famous guest preacher and special activities inside and out hosted by our Climate and Environmental Justice committee to raise our awareness of the need for all of us to be better stewards of the earth’s resources and to become proactive in doing our part to stall climate change. COVID-19 has taken these celebrations away temporarily, although there is much happening virtually to celebrate Earth Day on Wednesday, April 22. Many of us are feeling sustained in this time because we are intentional about getting outside, taking walks, soaking up the sun and watching the earth green up following a long winter. Joy Harjo writes in her lovely poem “Remember”: “Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them, listen to them. They are alive poems.” The Earth’s poetry is speaking to us now. While we isolate and socially distance, the earth is doing its own recovering from our misuse. It is predicted that carbon emissions from fossil fuels could fall by 2.5 billion metric tons this year—the largest drop on record. Air pollution, a heavy threat to human health, has also dropped dramatically, and the cleaner air may assist in heavily populated areas in reducing the spread of coronavirus (from The Atlantic, April 2, 2020). Have you noticed that birdsong is louder? That isn’t just because the creatures are rejoicing, it’s because their calls no longer need to break through polluting particles in the air in order to be heard. Ocean life is also positively impacted in this time; the noise from cruise ships has been determined to raise hormonal stress levels in ocean animals, impacting their reproduction. Michelle Fournet, a marine ecologist, was interviewed for an article entitled “The Pandemic Is Turning the World Upside Down” in the same issue of The Atlantic. Fournet wonders with hope about the North Pacific humpback whales, who have begun to move north this month and will soon be swimming with newborn calves in southeast Alaska, a region also popular with cruise ships for views of local wildlife. “This will be the quietest entry that humpback whales have had in southeastern Alaska in decades,” Fournet said. “Nature is taking a breath when the rest of us are holding ours.”

While the Earth takes healing advantage of humanity’s required sabbath, Easter’s song to us is one of renewal and re-creation. The tomb was empty so that we could be full; it shows us that life is sacred and not meant to be squandered, that even when despair threatens to consume, hope’s light lives on the horizon. Easter comes regardless of—in spite of—quarantine and COVID-19. Death does not have the final say. People of faith are invited into life abundant, into relationships blessed by the Divine, into the possibility of the unbelievable. Easter reminds us to release our held breath and open our hearts to the fullness of life. Jesus spoke the words from the 14th chapter of John before his death . . . an encouraging pep talk, words to remember when Jesus would no longer be with his disciples: “Peace I leave with you . . . do not be afraid . . . you will see me because I am alive and you will come alive, too . . . love fiercely,” Jesus says, “even when you no longer see me, even when you lock yourselves away in fear, even in a time of quarantine, because ‘a loveless world is a sightless world.’” Perhaps healing in a time of pandemic comes when we remember to breathe and with our breath recall our capacity to love and be loved. COVID-19 may be insidious and weave its way into our communities and homes, but it is no match for Easter hope and our own power to love.

I emerged from my self-prescribed quarantine all those years ago a different person. Once an off-the-scale extrovert, I became someone who loved interpersonal connection but was reticent of large groups and now needs intentional solitude to fill energy reserves. I was far more vulnerable upon my reentry to the world and highly sensitized . . . I felt the brisk air on my face in new ways, sounds were louder and could be terribly jarring, I was extremely tuned to other people’s sadness as if we shared a cosmic connection. Never having been much of a crier, I wept freely and often, tears would come with uncontrolled spontaneity and they still do. I feel deeply and am aware of all I took for granted before. Things that used to bother me—pet peeves—became minutia and unimportant. I understood strength from laughter in a brand new way and still do not take laughter for granted . . . because grief and fear steal one’s joy . . . but laughter is a gift that replaces it. And while the healing process continued, I understood that I was being transformed, changed, renewed. Our liminal time of distance and isolation will change us, because healing changes us. We are on a threshold of something new, something yet to be determined, not something to fear but to anticipate with hope. And we prepare by participating in our own healing. So perhaps healing in a time of pandemic means practicing forgiveness, letting go of a grudge, examining and repairing a fractured relationship, finding new endeavors that bring joy, remembering what is most important, letting go of expectations and the weight of self-imposed judgment. Perhaps healing in a time of pandemic means fostering creative energy in unimagined ways, spending time in spiritual practice and in the solace of prayer and paying close attention to the holiness of our own breath. Perhaps healing in a time of pandemic will gentle us, and we will reenter the world more aware of the earth’s gifts and our power to protect her. Perhaps healing in a time of pandemic will soften our hard edges and remind us how much we really need each other. Perhaps healing in a time of pandemic will help us to finally become comfortable in our own skin and embrace our unique gifts, and we will love ourselves as much as God loves us.

Indeed, we can know healing in this liminal time called pandemic.

Amen.

[1]“Liminality,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liminality (accessed April 22, 2020).